As predicted by Windows enthusiast site ActiveWin, Microsoft Corporation has finally released the oft-delayed Beta 3 release of Windows Millennium Edition ("Windows ME"), the final version of Windows 9x. Windows ME features a refined user interface based on that used by Windows 2000, with consumer oriented features and reliability improvements. And though Windows ME represents the end of an era in many ways, it also points to a future of NT-based consumer Windows products, with its HTML-based Help & Support and System Restore applications. Microsoft says that Beta 3 is the final major milestone for the product, which is currently expected to ship on June 6, 2000.

Recently, there has been some confusion about the mission of Windows ME, since previous versions of Windows 9x were versatile enough to server in consumer and business environments. However, with the no-compromises release of Windows 2000 for business users, Microsoft has decided to focus Windows ME solely on the home/consumer market, which is a logical decision. However, this means that some business-oriented features from Windows 98 are not present in Windows ME, such as the client for Novell networks. So business users should stick with Windows 98 or upgrade to Windows 2000; Windows ME is solely in the home camp.

Microsoft says that Windows ME is designed to enhance and simplify computer use for home users. Specifically, Windows ME makes it easier for home users to set up a computer quickly and connect to the Internet, share information with others on a home network, and easily maintain the health of a computer. To this end, Windows ME includes a host of wizards, ease of use features, and an overall simplification at ever level that makes it a decent upgrade for Windows 98 users. New feature such as System Restore, AutoUpdate, HTML-based Help and Support, Movie Maker, Windows Media Player 7, and Windows ME-specific features of Internet Explorer that are all geared toward home users and the types of activities that these users are likely to be interested.

Windows ME is designed primarily for new machine installations, but it will also upgrade machines running Windows 95 or Windows 98. It requires a Pentium 150 or higher with 32 MB of RAM or more, though a Pentium II 300 with 64 MB or better is recommended. Certain advanced features, such as Movie Maker and Windows Media Player 7, require more resources than Microsoft's stated minimums.

If you're interested in Windows ME, I have written and will write much about the Beta 3 release. Currently, you can read my introduction to Windows ME Beta 3 on the SuperSite for Windows; I'll have an exhaustive review of this release up by the end of the week. And in the days ahead, I'll be taking a closer look at some of Windows ME's most compelling features, such as System Restore, the removal of Real Mode DOS, and Movie Maker